How Bernie Sanders Romanced His Future Wife While They Were on a 'Friends' -Style 'Break'

Bernie Sanders employed various methods, including playdates, Christmas presents and a fateful date at Friendly's

Photo: Martin Schoeller

If “romantic” isn’t the first image presidential candidate Bernie Sanders conjures, think again.

The cantankerous-sounding Vermont senator hot on Hillary Clinton‘s heels for the Democratic presidential nomination is also a slow-dancing-in-the-living-room kind of guy, his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders tells PEOPLE.

And he’s not a quitter.

In an expansive at-home interview for the new issue of PEOPLE, Jane, 65, recalls how she and Bernie, 74, met – at his first mayoral debate in Burlington, Vermont, in 1981. As Sanders was at the lectern, challenging the then-incumbent mayor, “I sat in the second row and I fell in love with Bernie’s ideas,” Jane recalls.

“We met eyes – a few times, which I thought was interesting.”

At an election-night party weeks later, Sanders asked her to dance “and that was it,” says Jane, then a divorced mother of three young children.

The couple dated for eight years before breaking up for about a year. “I wanted to get married and he didn’t,” Jane says. Then, evoking Ross and Rachel of TV’s Friends, she adds, “We were on a break.”

For more of our at-home interview with Senator Sanders and his family, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

But Bernie did not give up – on Jane or her children.

“He still came over that Christmas to give them presents and be with them,” says Jane. “And he made it a point to go out with them even though he and I weren’t together anymore. He taught them basketball, baseball, checkers, chess.”

“It wasn’t that he just went away. When he finally asked me to marry him, I thought about that, about how he’s somebody you can count on.”

And, about that marriage proposal – Sanders himself winds up the story: “Look when you do a proposal, it has to be done with ambience. Proper moment, proper lighting. Right? I’ll let Jane tell you the rest of the story.”

Continues Jane: “We were on a break and he was trying to get me back and I said, ‘No. I want to get married and you don’t.’ We finished our ice cream sundae at Friendly’s and we walked out to the parking lot and he said, ‘You want to get married?’ ”

“I said, ‘You know I do. Let’s not talk about this again.’ ”

“I wasn’t getting it, so he took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Will. You. Marry. Me.’ And I said, ‘When?’ ”

More than 27 years later, Jane says, the couple are still dancing together – at home in the living room.

“It just happens. Not around other people. Slow dance. Just swaying.”

So, is Sanders a romantic? Says Jane, “He’s romantic enough for me, believe me.”

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